Upon hearing his name, Alberto Pancho walked alone to the front of the courtroom in downtown Los Angeles.
“Do you have a lawyer?” the immigration judge asked during a recent hearing.
Pancho, a native of Equatorial Guinea whose student visa had expired, explained that the attorney to whom he had paid $5,000 didn’t show up at the last hearing and he couldn’t find another one.
“You told me if I didn’t have a lawyer I’d have to represent myself,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m capable of doing that.”
Immigration judges in Los Angeles heard 27,200 cases in the last fiscal year, and stepped-up enforcement is expected to result in more this year.
Some involve foreigners fighting for asylum; others involve people with possible criminal records who are trying to avoid deportation.
Unlike defendants in criminal courts, individuals in immigration court do not have the right to free representation. Though there are no local statistics on the number of people who appeared in immigration court without lawyers, 58% of respondents nationwide were unrepresented, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the courts.
“Immigration laws are extremely complex,” said Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges. “It’s a tremendous aid to us when someone is competently represented.”
But finding an inexpensive or free attorney can be extremely difficult, advocates and lawyers said. And the stakes are high: Foreigners can face deportation, family separation and even political persecution.
“Someone who is not an immigration attorney cannot possibly understand the complexities to do what they need to do to have a fighting chance,” said Judy London, who directs the immigrant rights project of Public Counsel, a Los Angeles pro bono law firm.
The federal government, private firms and nonprofit organizations are launching new efforts to increase pro bono representation. But advocates said the only solution would be a public defender program.
“Nonprofits just don’t have the resources to represent everybody,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review has expanded pro bono programs for unaccompanied children and legal orientation seminars for detained immigrants, and has increased the number of court-sponsored training programs for attorneys willing to take cases at no cost.
Actress Angelina Jolie, Microsoft Corp. and other businesses are kicking off a nationwide project to ensure free lawyers for children in immigration court.
And in Los Angeles, nonprofit groups including the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights are raising money for representation of immigrants arrested in raids at work sites. About 45 local attorneys have agreed to cap their fees on such cases.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he doesn’t have a problem with pro bono representation by private attorneys but believes immigrants shouldn’t have a right to publicly funded counsel.
“It’s not a criminal process,” he said. “There is simply no justification for taxpayer-funded lawyers.”
During Pancho’s hearing in Los Angeles, Judge Philip DiMarzio gave him one more extension.
“I want to give you every opportunity to retain a lawyer,” he said. “By the same token, your case needs to move forward.”
Pancho, 36, arrived in the U.S. on a student visa and later married a U.S. citizen. He said his visa probably expired before his family petition was approved. He said he doesn’t understand immigration law or know how to fight deportation.
“I have a family,” said Pancho, who lives in Riverside. “If I make a mistake, who will take care of them?”
Advocates said the situation is worse for detained immigrants, who may have an even harder time finding attorneys. To address this, the federal government contracts with organizations to provide legal orientation in immigration detention centers nationwide.
Locally, attorneys from Catholic Charities of Los Angeles visit the Mira Loma Immigration Detention Center in Lancaster three times a week to inform detainees of their rights and to try to match some with attorneys willing to work at no cost.
During a presentation this spring, Julianne Donnelly, director of Catholic Charities’ immigrant rights project, told detainees that she was there to answer their questions about the law, and explain possible defenses against deportation and how they can obtain a bond.
But Donnelly said the orientation is a “short-term fix for the larger problem.”
“It’s immigration law 101 in two hours,” she said. “How much can you really take away from that?”